By Gary Dowell
Three years ago, Kick-Ass lit up a small number of screens like a cinematic firebomb tossed into unsuspecting megaplexes; audiences were caught off guard by the sight of a then-unknown Chloë Moretz swearing like a sailor with Tourette’s Syndrome while slicing and dicing street thugs at the encouragement of a demented Adam West-esque vigilante father (one of Nicolas Cage’s better roles of late), of still-relatively unknown Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a teenager who decides to become a superhero only to get gut-stabbed on his first attempt, and of that kid who played McLovin in Superbad (Chris Mintz-Plasse) sliding into super-villainy. Some were shocked and/or appalled (the later Roger Ebert decried it as “the death of innocence” in his review — this from the guy who wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for Russ Meyer) but most were amused enough to turn it into a sleeper hit.
An unexpected sequel to an unexpected hit, Kick-Ass 2 pulls its punches in comparison to the first; the ultra-violence and raunch seems to have been toned down — though maybe the initial shock of it all has long since worn off — and it occasionally slips into the superhero action cliches the original targeted for satire. Although it lacks the freewheeling anarchic energy of its forebear, it manages to be an enjoyably twisted follow-up to it without being too half-assed (pun intended).
Picking up where the first film ended, we find 15-year-old Mindy “Hit-Girl” McCready (Moretz) facing a new kind of evil: high school. Forced to give up crime fighting by her adoptive father (Morris Chestnut), the girl who knows dozens of ways to maim and kill with her bare hands finds herself at a loss with how to handle stuck-up popular kids.
Meanwhile, the previous antics of wanna-be superhero Dave “Kick-Ass” Lizewski (Taylor-Johnson) have inspired a new generation of amateur avengers, chief among them a motley and slightly pathetic group called Justice Forever led by ex-mob enforcer turned born-again Christian Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey).
None of this sits well with former classmate Chris D’Amico (Mintz-Plasse), who, after betraying Kick-Ass as the Red Mist in the first installment, now seeks to vengeance for the death of his father as the world’s first super-villain, the Motherfucker. He organizes a gang of his own — the Toxic Mega Cunts — and raises the stakes as he goes to work on the city and its self-appointed protectors.
So yeah, it’s sorta like The Dark Knight meets Mean Girls, but with more swearing and dismemberment. And much like the former, it has a central theme of escalation, as the Motherfucker’s increasingly violent and sadistic methods strip away the wish-fulfillment aspect of vigilantism for both the good guys and the viewer, making it every bit the surreal and subversive superhero film that the first movie and their comic book source material were. However, director Jeff Wadlow, substituting for Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class), focuses too much on trying to mimic the controversial elements of the first film rather than tell the story at the heart of KA2, relegating the quirky character elements that made Kick-Ass tick to background status. As a result, Hit-Girl’s pirahna-out-of-water high school odyssey is perfunctory and Dave’s tragic coming-of-age story carries an air of detachment.
Which isn’t to say it’s not an entertaining flick; the action sequences are inspired and suitably bloody and hyper-kinetic, the gags are raunchy and non-PC, and sly comic book commentary is still there (a t-shirt worn by Dave in one scene sums up a decade’s worth of fan-boy sentiments in one throw-away sight gag). “Try to have fun, otherwise what’s the point?”, advises Colonel Stars and Stripes before a big takedown. It’s an ethos that Kick-Ass 2 wears on its sleeve, reminding us that this stuff is best enjoyed when not taken too seriously.